Freedom of speech extinguishes firewalls in Pakistan

An online civil society group in Karachi wins a reprieve on internet censorship.

In February this year the Pakistan government, under influence from the military state, put out a $10 million public tender for “development, deployment and operation of a national-level URL filtering and blocking system”. Until this point the left hand and the right hand, as the country’s irrepressible satirists would have it, were doing different things: despite an ability to cut off internet sites such as Facebook and Youtube (and pornography sites), services have only been blocked infrequently and reinstated in the ensuing uproar. And despite being known to big up their surveillance capacity, the move was seen as a way for the ISI to bring internet censorship more into their domain.  

This effort by the state to create a firewall with automatic blocking and filtering along the lines of China seemed to be different. Instead of being shrouded in secrecy, the contracts for tender were openly put out in the media and through the Ministry of Communication and Technology and described a system that would have,

a central database of undesirable URLs that would be loaded on to the distributed hardware boxes at each POP and updated on a daily basis . . . technology should be able to handle a block list of up to 50 million URLs (concurrent unidirectional filtering capacity) with processing delay of not more than 1 milliseconds . . . The database would be regularly updated through subscription to an international reputed company maintaining and updating such databases. 

It allowed Pakistan’s energetic and harassed civil society and civil rights defenders, including Bytes for All to get ahead. “The authorities [for which read military] are big fans of China and how it filters the Internet,” Sana Saleem, 24-year-old founder of Bolo Bhi, whose civil liberties and site had been blocked for several months in 2010, told the New York Times. “They overlook the fact that China is an autocratic regime and we are a democracy.” 

“What makes this kind of censorship so insidious is that they always use national security, pornography or blasphemy as an explanation for blocking other kinds of speech.”  

She wrote to the chief executives of eight international companies asking them to publically declare that they would not tender for the contract. So far five - including Websense, McAfee, Cisco Systems and Verizon - have made that commitment. Those still in the running include Huawei of China. 

Then in March, Farooq Awan, Pakistan’s IT secretary, told Bolo Bhi that the plan for the national URL filtering and blocking system had been shelved; that the ministry did not know who had initiated it and that the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) were not keen on the system after all the criticism. Bolo Bhi, along with other civil society members, is now seeking a high-court injunction against PTA for censoring the internet in a way that violates Pakistan’s laws and constitution. 

Unless the military adopt Chinese tactics and use secrecy to put a firewall in place, the attempted ban on censorship seems to have temporarily failed. Bad news for one of its instigators, the religious and pious “15-year-old” computer nerd Ghazi Muhammad Abdullah, who complained for months on end to PTA that pornography sites needed to be censored and when asked to provide a list came up with 780,000 of them; excellent news for Pakistan’s enthusiastic texters and tweeters who learnt words they didn’t know on a projected list of PTA banned text words that has also failed to be implemented. 

The issue of internet surveillance isn’t just relevant in Pakistan. In February there was a tweet comment about projected internet scrutiny by the Indian government from @pragmatic_d in Delhi: “Wow. A government which can't clean drains properly wants to scan all emails, tweets and updates.”

Catriona Luke is a freelance writer and editor

A Pakistani boy plays with an advertisement of a laptop computer in Lahore. Photo: Getty Images
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What it’s like to be a Syrian refugee in Paris

“We fled from terror and it found us again here. It feels like it is always behind us, stalking us.”

Walid al Omari arrived in Paris a little less than a month ago. Having fled the slaughter of his homeland and undertaken the long and dangerous journey, like tens of thousands of other Syrian refugees, to western Europe, he was finally safe.

Ten days later, a wave of brutal violence tore through the French capital as gunmen and suicide bombers put an end to the lives of 130 people who had been out enjoying a drink, dinner, a concert or a football match.

“It felt like terrorism was everywhere,” recalls the 57-year-old Walid, a former small business owner and journalist from the suburbs of Damascus.

“We fled from terror and it found us again here. It feels like it is always behind us, stalking us.”

Syrian refugees, not just in Paris but across Europe and North America, have since found themselves caught up in a storm of suspicion. The backlash started after it emerged that at least two of the attackers arrived in Europe among refugees travelling to Greece, while a Syrian passport was found next to one of the bodies.

It has not yet been confirmed if the two men were really Syrian – all suspects whose identities have so far been made public were either French or Belgian – while the passport is widely believed to be a fake. But, already, several US states have said they will not accept any more refugees from Syria. In Europe, Poland has called for the EU’s quota scheme for resettling refugees to be scrapped, while lawmakers in France, Germany and elsewhere have called for caps on refugee and migrant numbers.

“I fear the worse,” says Sabreen al Rassace, who works for Revivre, a charity that helps Syrian refugees resettle in France. She says she has been swamped by calls by concerned refugees in the days following the attacks.

“They ask me if the papers they have been given since they arrived in France will be taken away, if they’ll be sent back to Syria,” she says.

Anas Fouiz, who arrived in Paris in September, has experienced the backlash against refugees first hand.

“One waiter at a bar asked me where I was from and when I said Syria he said that I must be a terrorist, that all Arab people are terrorists,” says the 27-year-old from Damascus, who had been a fashion student before leaving for Europe.

The irony is that the terrorist organisation that claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks, the Islamic State, is, along with Bashar al Assad’s army and other militant groups, responsible for the long list of atrocities that prompted many like Walid and Anas to flee their homes.

“As a man in Syria you have the choice of joining the Syrian army, the Islamic state or another militant group, or you run away,” says Anas.

He remembers seeing news of the attacks unfold on television screens in bars and cafés in the Bastille area of Paris – close to where much of the carnage took place – as he drank with a friend. Desensitised by having seen so much violence and death in his home city, he didn’t feel any shock or fear.

“I just felt bad, because I know this situation,” he says. “You just ask yourself ‘why? Why do these people have to die?’.”

Perhaps a more pressing cause for concern is how easily extremists in Europe can travel to Syria and back again through the porous borders on the EU’s fringes – as several of the Paris attacks suspects are thought to have done.

Both Anas and Walid speak of the lax security they faced when entering Europe.

“Turkey lets people across the border for $20,” says Walid.

“In Greece, they just ask you to write your nationality, they don’t check passports,” adds Anas. “It’s the same in Hungary and Macedonia.”

Nevertheless, and despite his experience with the waiter, Anas says he is happy with the welcome he has received by the vast majority of the French people.

In fact, at a time when fear and violence risk deepening religious and social rifts, Anas’s story is a heartening tale of divisions being bridged.

Upon first arriving in Paris he slept on the streets, before a passer-by, a woman of Moroccan origin, offered him a room in her flat. He then spent time at a Christian organization that provides shelter for refugees, before moving in with a French-Jewish family he was put in touch with through another charity.

He says the biggest problem is that he misses his parents, who are still in Damascus.

“I speak to my mum twice a day on the phone,” he says. “She asks me if I’m okay, if I’m keeping safe. She’s worried about me.”